13 Jun 2011

Theft of non-ferrous metals

Based on recent figures from the British Transport Police crime on Britain's railways has fallen year on year -- with one significant exception.  Theft of property on the railway network has continued to rise, mainly due to a 70% increase in cable theft.

Underlying this increase is a booming trade in stolen non-ferrous metals, driven by the demands of growth in China and market speculation on the price of recycled copper and similar materials.  The British Transport Police have previously described metal theft as their next biggest priority after combating terrorism.

Statistics for copper theft in Britain closely follow changes in the commodity's market price.  The number of reported incidents rose sharply when the market price took off in 2006.

This UnctadStat chart shows the increase in cash prices for copper since 2000 (click for full size):

 Economic costs

The economic cost of repairing rail infrastructure and electrical installations compromised by stolen metals is vastly disproportionate to the scrap value of the material itself.

Network Rail, the authority responsible for the UK's rail network, is reportedly paying out millions of pounds for replacement work, staff overtime and compensation to passengers for delayed services.  In a recent incident Network Rail attributed over 9,000 minutes of rail delays to an attempted cable theft at a substation in Farnborough, Hampshire.

Copper theft is also a substantial problem for telecommunications providers.  Last month broadband services in parts of south Wales were cut following incidents of cable theft.  In July British Telecom (BT) had to replace nearly 3 km of copper cabling after 1,400 customers were affected by a disruption on the Kent network.

BT has launched a nationwide campaign against cable theft.  However it is likely that the full scale of vulnerability in the utility sectors is under-reported due to commercial and security sensitivities. 

Danger to life

Although systematic theft of non-ferrous metals from railway and utility sites is sometimes attributed to organised gangs, many incidents are the work of opportunistic petty criminals who may be putting both themselves and others in danger.

Last week a Leeds man was badly burned after receiving a 21,000 volt shock while trying to take cabling from a sub-powerstation.  In February a gas explosion that blew out windows at a block of flats in Runcorn was blamed on thieves stealing copper piping.

Last year copper theft caused an electrical surge in Bolton that knocked out power to 400 properties and led to household applicances catching fire.  Although there were no injuries, firefighters attended 71 related incidents over a three hour period. 


One of the most worrying developments is a series of reported thefts of dry riser valves from residential tower blocks.  Dry risers are systems of vertical pipes that enable the fire service to delivery water to the upper levels of high-rise buildings.

In one incident in 2008 firefighters tackling a large fire on the 10th floor of a Glasgow tower block were delayed as they attempted to establish a link to dry risers on several floors, finding them all inoperative.  Last year social housing provider Barnet Homes issued an appeal for information after 50 brass valves were stolen in a series of incidents. 


Church buildings were an early target for thefts of non-ferrous metals, mainly due to the widespread use of lead roofing materials.  According to specialist insurer Ecclesiastical the number of losses dipped in 2009 (in line with market prices) but 2010 figures were back at the level seen in 2007 and 2008.

Incidents continue to make the news.  In Nottingham a medieval church has been hit several times this year, with the loss of two thirds of its roofing panels.  Earlier this month a church in Scunthorpe had to be evacuated and ventilated for safety reasons after 100 ft of copper gas piping was stolen.

In December Ecclesiastical identified dioceses in Manchester, Lincoln, Chelmsford, Southwark and Lichfield as those worst hit.  The insurer has published risk management guidance for churches struggling with this problem.

Churches are often left unattended overnight, and this makes them an inviting target for thieves.  Cemeteries and schools are at risk for similar reasons.  There have also been incidents of thefts of bronze statues and other works of art in the open.  Most notably a £3m Henry Moore sculpture was stolen from an estate in Hertfordshire in late 2005 -- police say the sculpture, valued at £3m, was sold off as scrap for just £1,500. 

Market speculation

Some analysts think that recent market prices for copper and other non-ferrous metals are over-heated.  The market is bullish on copper in anticipation that demand from China for industrial metals will continue to grow.  The recent uptick in copper prices was also partly a response to the shutdown of a Chilean copper port following an accident.  However drawdowns of inventory on London Metal Exchange (LME) so far do not fully justify the current market price, and speculation demand may ebb away as global economic growth weakens. 


The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) has formed a Conductive Metal Theft Working Group.  In discussion with this group the British Metal Recycling Association (BMRA), a trade association for the UK's metal recycling sector, has agreed a code of practice (PDF) for its members that essentially endorses crime reduction measures in place under existing legislation.

Tighter regulation of the recycling industry could in theory reduce the amount of stolen non-ferrous metal that makes its way into the supply chain.  However it is difficult to see any means of achieving that without undermining the informal but more or less legitimate trade in old pipes, cables and other scrap metal scavenged or 'tatted' from genuinely disused buildings.

Another approach would be to change sentencing guidelines so that the penalty for theft of metals reflects the actual economic cost of restoration and, where relevant, the risk to life --- rather than simply the scrap value of the stolen metal.  Experience suggests though that for street-level offences such as metal theft offenders mainly consider the likelihood of detection rather than the penalty.

In the long term replacement of copper cabling with optical fibre will reduce losses to Britain's rail infrastructure.  However even where optical fibre is in place, thieves will continue to do damage looking for copper cabling as long as it remains widely available and can be resold.

There are a number of commercial products such as SmartWater and SelectaDNA Trace available for marking non-ferrous metals so that they can be traced forensically.  While it would be impractical for Network Rail and utility companies to make use of these products in sufficient quantity to protect all of their assets, they are a useful preventative measure for use on a smaller scale.